Digett Summer Internship: Lessons Learned

August 21, 2013
Lessons the Digett team learned from our first summer internship program.

With our summer intern Sarah gone back to school and fall interns scheduled to start soon, it’s the perfect time to share some of the lessons the Digett team learned while searching for and working with interns. I hope you find them valuable as you consider working with interns at your own business.

It’s not about free/cheap labor

We knew going in that Digett’s Internship Program was not going to be about finding interns to make coffee and do grunt work. There are many internships available for students, so we need to differentiate ourselves by providing opportunities for our interns that they’re not likely to get elsewhere — namely chances to work on real-world projects in conjunction with the Digett team, as well as build their personal portfolios with work that boosts their odds of landing a job once they graduate.

Start searching early

We started looking for summer interns in April, which we discovered was too late. Motivated students do their research and apply early, and local universities have their last internship and job fairs in February.

This is not to say that potential interns you speak to in May are untalented slackers who didn’t do their research and are now applying desperately for anything they can find; however, you’re likely to have a bigger and better pool of candidates from which to choose if you start looking early.

For example, we got in contact with and interviewed five people for summer positions. By starting our search for fall interns early in the summer, we were able to speak with more than twice as many candidates, and even start a shortlist for spring 2014.

Plan, plan, plan

Plenty of planning went into finding, interviewing, and keeping track of intern candidates, but we knew we also had to plan out the projects and tasks that interns needed to accomplish in their time with Digett.

This started with a document that listed eight project categories (completing a project for a non-profit, monthly blogging, client work, etc.) meant to take interns through the entire summer; additionally we created checklists that gave interns a roadmap of their activities from week to week. These were lifesavers.

Be prepared to lose some time

Onboarding an intern is similar to onboarding a new employee: you have to get them set up with email and access keys, get them up to speed on current projects, etc.

Beyond that, however, is the learning curve associated with general inexperience. Interns need to spend time with team members internalizing industry concepts and jargon, and may even need guidance on things like professional behavior and written communication styles.

There were many times over the summer when I had to decide between completing a task quickly myself, or assigning it to Sarah with the knowledge that it would be a good thing for her to learn, but that I’d have to spend time teaching her.

If you’re doing it right (see lesson one above), you will lose some time on your projects as you endeavor to teach interns the skills they need to succeed in the industry.

Don’t let a resume be the deciding factor

By this I mean the actual document you receive from a potential intern. Writing a solid resume is challenging, and most students will not have previous employment that is ideal for your industry. You need to be able to look past that.

Sarah’s experience creating window designs at a local retailer isn’t what some would call relevant, but we knew that work involved strategy, creativity, and a sense of aesthetics — all of which are great traits for a Marketing intern.

When in doubt, schedule a phone interview. This helps you get an idea of the candidate’s personality, as well as ferret out some more relevant information.

  • What classes are they taking, and what are they learning? (Skill relevancy)
  • Are they learning things on their own outside of class? (Shows motivation)
  • What questions do they ask you? (Shows curiosity and interest level)

Lastly, consider whether potential candidates are a good culture fit; Joe might have great experience, but if he’s looking for a laid-back environment and your company is high-stress, it’s not going to work out for either party.

It’s a two-way street

Working with and getting to know Sarah was a great deal of fun, and it was nice to have her energy in the office. She showed us new perspectives and contributed great ideas, and helped us prepare to give this fall’s interns an even more valuable experience at Digett.

Round two starts August 26th...I wonder what we’ll learn next?